Potato incites sharing of knowledge between Bhutan, Nepal, and Peru

“Never in my life had I seen so many varieties of potato, so many different shapes, sizes, and colors,” replied a delighted Tashi Yangzom, a female potato farmer from Bhutan, when we asked her for a comment on the exchange visit made to Peru as part of the project on “Biodiverse and Nutritious Potato Improvement across Peru, Nepal and Bhutan.”

She, together with potato farmer Dawa Dorje Tamang from Nepal; Rajeev Dhakal, a scientist from the NGO ‘Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development’, of Nepal; Tshering Dochen, scientist from the Potato Development Program of Bhutan; Sushma Arya, a researcher from CIP-India; Mohinder Singh Kadian, CIP’s coordinator of the project in Nepal and Bhutan and Mathilde Lefebvre, a consultant responsible for data management in this project, visited Peru from May 1 to 13, 2017. The exchange visit included CIP headquarters in Lima, and farmers’ fields in Huamachuco and Chugay – in northern Peru – and Huancayo and Huancavelica in the central Andes, where the Peruvian partners Asociación Pataz and Grupo Yanapai are evaluating late blight resistant and biofortified potatoes.

The purpose of the visit to Peru was to learn about germplasm exchange and access to genetic resources, as well as to take part in participatory varietal selection approach in the Peruvian Andes and to learn about late blight management of new resistant potato varieties.  The participants were also trained in the use of HIDAP (Highly Interactive Data Analysis and Productivity), a data management program developed at CIP.

“The principal objective of the project – funded by the European Union – is to reduce the vulnerability of populations of the high mountain areas of Peru, Nepal, and Bhutan by means of the exchange, improvement, and rapid release and dissemination of potato varieties with improved nutritional quality, accepted by the consumer, which have stable yields, and are resistant to diseases,” informs the project’s principal investigator, Thomas zum Felde.

“It is increasingly recognized that genetic diversity is a mean for helping to assure productivity and resilience of agriculture when facing biotic and abiotic threats in changing environments,” continues the researcher.

“Broadening the genetic base of the crops and diversifying production reduces the risk and the vulnerability to climate and other environmental changes, so it is essential for food security,” he says. And it was in this context that the project idea came up to promote this interchange for knowledge sharing, so that farmers from Nepal and Bhutan could observe and comment about other realities and methods of production, selection, and systems approach in Peru, which will be complemented with the visit of Peruvian potato farmers and researchers to Nepal and Bhutan in 2018.

“This visit to CIP and to some of the main potato growing areas in Peru is a long-cherished wish that has become true,” comments Tshering Dochen, a scientist with the Potato Development Program of Bhutan. “It has improved my knowledge about research and development of the potato in general and, in particular, about participatory varietal selection with the mother-and-baby trials, data management, germplasm exchange, and fast seed multiplication. This visit has motivated me to evaluate and introduce some advanced biofortified materials and Andean native varieties into Bhutan to improve food and nutrition security in my country,” he adds.

Evidently, Peru’s immense potato biodiversity has left the visitors in awe.  “There were some varieties that didn’t actually look like potatoes.  When I first saw them, I couldn’t believe they were potatoes!” exclaimed Dawa Lama, a farmer from Nepal, who was just as astonished at the maize, “I had never seen purple maize before,” he said.

Tashi says that in her country there are only two potato varieties: Desiree and Yusi Kaap. “Here in Peru I have seen lots of improved varieties that have a high yield, are resistant to pests and diseases, and are additional highly nutritional. I have also seen many native potato varieties that are very tasty and are believed to be rich in micronutrients.  This experience and exposure has motivated me to cultivate new potato varieties in my region (Bumthang in Bhutan),” she adds.

Tshering Dochen, for his part, comments: “We learned why the Peruvian farmers maintain and produce a large quantity of native potato varieties.  These native varieties are not only for their own consumption, but they are also preferred by the public because of their better flavor and greater nutritional value, so the producers get a higher price for them in the urban market”. The scientist says that for him it has been most valuable to see fast seed multiplication technologies, such as aeroponics and the vegetative multiplication methods to address the scarcity of quality seed, “which is the most significant limitation confronting potato producers in developing countries.”

Dawa was impressed too, with the difficulties involved in potato research, “which motivates me to work hard in helping to improve living conditions in Nepal,” he says. He adds that the visit was useful for him to learn about crossing, breeding, and developing new potato varieties, “we were able to attend a demonstration in the CIP Huancayo facilities, where I also learned about the aeroponics system; it was wonderful,” he exclaims. He adds that he was particularly impressed by the disks, a simple tool that helps farmers to decide if and when to apply fungicides against late blight. In Nepal, late blight is the main problem, together with bacterial wilt and the potato wart,” he explains.

Rajeev Dhakal, a scientist from the Nepal based NGO ‘Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development’, finds that the visit not only deepened his knowledge of the potato crop, but at the same time taught him a lot of other things, such as being made aware of the possibilities offered by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, “its work method, objectives, and ideas to benefit peasant communities.”

And he adds: “Besides that, as a plant breeder I have always been fascinated by CGIAR’s research into variety breeding.  But after visiting CIP and seeing the research work for myself, I have a better understanding of it and an increased respect for the research approaches, obtaining biofortified potatoes has taken the researchers’ thought to a new level of service to mankind.”

“All of us in this delegation are especially grateful to Manuel Gastelo, Wilmer Pérez, Carolina Bastos, and Gabriela Burgos for their scientific support during this exchange visit, and to Thomas zum Felde and Mohinder Kadian for having organized the visit,” he said.